Get ready for the microscope, huh,” Major Harry Schmidt, flying an F-16 (call sign “Coffee 5-2″) said to his flight leader, Major William Umbach (“Coffee 5-1″) after dropping a 500-pound bomb on the night of April 17, 2002. Schmidt and Umbach were flying an “on call” mission over the combat zone around Kandahar, Afghanistan. Their job was to circle overhead and wait — for a call that might not come from ground units needing their help. No calls came that night. Schmidt’s bomb was dropped on what he thought were enemies firing at him from the ground. It hit a group of Canadian soldiers, killing four and seriously wounding eight.
The intense review of this incident that Schmidt foresaw began with an investigation by a “Coalition Investigative Board” which found the pilots at fault. That investigation was thrown out because of possible interference of commanding officers in forming that board. Last week, an Article-32 hearing (the military equivalent of a grand jury) began hearing evidence, preparing to determine if Schmidt and Umbach should be tried before a general court martial, which could impose prison terms on each of them of more than 60 years.
All too often, the press and some politicians second-guess a soldier for a decision he made in a split second while under fire. Such criticism is usually both perfectly ignorant and wholly unjustified. That said, there are serious issues raised by this deadly accident. Whatever is done with Schmidt and Umbach, two principles must be preserved. First, we must keep faith with those who risk their lives to defend our freedom. That means we can’t second-guess them merely because we don’t like the result of what they did. Second, we must fairly hold our people accountable to the orders they receive, the rules they must follow, and to the standards they set for themselves. We cannot preserve either of those principles without preserving both.
Schmidt and Umbach took off from an undisclosed location (probably Kuwait) and flew for hours to get to Afghanistan on the night of April 17, 2002. Their flight of two F-16s was to circle near Kandahar at about 18,000 feet. It’s a task that is both boring and tense. Both Schmidt and Umbach had been given “go pills” — dextroamphetamine — to stave off fatigue on the long flight.
At about 12:51 A.M. local time (00:51:00 on the military clock), Schmidt made an initial contact report of gunfire from the ground at their flight. According to the transcript of the radio conversation between the two aircraft and the AWACS airborne controller, Schmidt and Umbach spent the next three minutes “designating” the “target” with lasers and apparently attempting to verify — by calling the AWACS — that there were no friendly troops there.
The turning point came — at 00:55:00 — when the AWACS responded, telling Schmidt and Umbach, “Coffee 5-1. Hold fire, I need details on SAFIRE.” (“SAFIRE” is the acronym for surface-to-air fire). Four seconds later, and without further orders from the AWACS, Schmidt says he sees men on the ground and is “…rolling in in self defense.” At 00:55:39 Schmidt called, “bomb’s away, cranking left.”
The Article-32 investigation will be looking hard at those four minutes. At 18,000 feet, Schmidt and Umbach were in no danger from the ground fire. Even if they had gone lower than their orders permitted, they could easily have banked the aircraft, pulled back on the stick, and have been out of harm’s way in the blink of an eye. The most-important question was raised by two ex-fighter pilots, both of whom had flown night-combat missions and been shot at in the process; both said emphatically that there was no urgent need to deal with the ground fire. No coalition ground troops were under attack, and from their altitude, Schmidt and Umbach could have waited indefinitely to deal with it. Whether Schmidt — after being told to hold fire by the AWACS, then invoked “self defense” and dropped the bomb — was derelict in his duty, and whether Umbach should have done more to stop him, will be decided in the coming court martial. Maybe they were overly aggressive. But people on dextroamphetamine usually are. And when you used to go by the call sign, “Psycho,” maybe people shouldn’t be telling you to take dextroamphetamine. (Schmidt was a Navy pilot before going to the Air Force and the Illinois Air National Guard. According to a Navy source, Schmidt’s call sign was “Psycho.” Schmidt was apparently too high-strung for the job, and when he went to the Air Force, the Navy didn’t shed any tears. )
Dr. Stephan Pasternak, a Navy doctor in the Vietnam days and now a prominent Washington psychiatrist, says dextroamphetamine can be a very dangerous drug if it’s not used properly. Dr. Pasternak, who used to review the medical fitness of pilots for flight status, said “You would never want to send a pilot up knowing he was on amphetamines.” The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry (1988) says that adverse effects of the drug can include, “…irritability, hostility, tension, confusion, anxiety, panic and, quite commonly, psychosis…psychosis may be induced in essentially normal people even by short-term administration of dextroamphetamine.” But the Air Force “go pills” policy mandates testing of aircrew members before they can take the low-dosage pills. Both Schmidt and Umbach were tested. The Air Force has been using go pills since at least Vietnam days, without a reported safety incident related to them.
If Schmidt or Umbach’s judgment was impaired by the pills, that will mitigate any punishment he receives. The inquiry and corrective actions must not stop with the two fly-guys. There are questions of culpability in their superiors that must be addressed.
Col. Lawrence Stutzriem was a senior officer in the “CAOC” — the Coalition Air Operations Center — that ran the Afghanistan air campaign. On Thursday, Col. Stutzriem testified that standing orders made clear that the firing range where the Canadian troops were killed would be open to live-fire exercises and that “I would assume every pilot who read (the orders) knew that Tarnak Farm was there.” Assume? Stutzriem testified that the pilots were entirely to blame because they failed to pass more information back to the CAOC. But Stutzriem and his boss — the commander of the CAOC — may be as much at fault as Schmidt and Umbach. And Stutzriem’s testimony has the distinct odor of backside covering all over it.
The pilots’ lawyers insist that neither knew about the Canadians being in the area for live-fire training. Col. David Nichols, Schmidt and Umbach’s commander, wrote a memo a month before the incident that complained that the CAOC’s procedures made it almost impossible for pilots to tell friendly and enemy ground forces apart. Nichols — who was also reprimanded after the incident — had written that his pleas to the CAOC went unanswered for so long, he had to beg his superiors to convene a meeting to resolve them. No CAOC representatives came to the meeting.
Col. Nichols should never have had to beg for a meeting. The CAOC commander — and Stutzriem — had an absolute duty to investigate and resolve Nichols’s complaints. If, as Nichols wrote, the CAOC’s orders — for airspace control and mission details — were too complex for pilots to understand, it was the CAOC’s business to fix it. Period. One essential part of keeping the faith with pilots such as Schmidt and Umbach — and every other guy sitting on an ejection seat today — is to investigate the CAOC problems, and to punish anyone who ignored them regardless of rank or position. And when the next CAOC is set up, someone had best be paying attention to this issue, or more accidents like this will happen.
MISSING FROM ACTION
Another issue that must be addressed: The Canadians might be alive today if they had carried the Cobra Wave. Among the dozens of electronic gadgets that crowd every fighter and bomber cockpit is a radio called the “IFF” — “identification, friend or foe.” When someone is in your airspace, the IFF tells you quickly if he’s a bad guy or not. Cobra Wave is a similar radio that transmits a narrow beam skyward. In the hands of an infantryman, it can label his unit as good guys. Many special-operations units have Cobra Wave. The regular Army has rejected it. And, obviously, the Canadians don’t have it. Before we launch the Iraq campaign, Cobra Wave should be in the hands of every infantry unit.
For Schmidt and Umbach, their pilot days are over. We need to hold them accountable, but fairly. We also need to take a hard look at the commanders of the CAOC in seeking to prevent accidents like these from happening again. Above all, we must be able to keep our faith with them and their colleagues, as they continue to defend our nation.
— Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and is the author of the novel, Legacy of Valor. He now often appears as a defense commentator on the Fox News Channel and MSNBC.